Poet of Shame and Guilt


In his introduction to his new book, Franz Kafka: Poet of Shame and Guilt, author and historian Saul Friedlander writes that “the quintessence of his being—the issues torturing Kafka most of his life were of a sexual nature.” The author supports this proclamation using ample citations and penetrating readings of Kafka’s work, and it is the basis from which this short biography proceeds. It is Friedlander’s intent to demonstrate that Kafka’s mystifying genius was derived largely from the psychosexual drama unfolding inside him. While some readers might consider this too speculative a starting point, the intelligent restraint of Friedlander’s analysis allows the biography to succeed. Citing Kafka’s letters, his work, and his uneven relations with both sexes, Friedlander gives us the raw, sensual material that fragmented the man, and emerged—with such eerie, opaque clarity—in his fiction.

Like Kafka, Friedlander is a Prague Jew whose family was torn apart by the Holocaust. Perhaps best known as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Nazi Germany and the Jews, Friedlander refrains from weighing the biography down with factual information about Kafka’s upbringing. The narrative of Kafka’s life is there of course, from his schoolboy education to his adolescent yearnings, from his university career to an eventual post with a Czech insurance company, as well as the author’s difficult relationship with his father, whose very being seemed to emasculate the hypersensitive Franz. These are all relevant, Friedlander knows, but their significance pales to the struggle of reconciliation taking place between Kafka’s brain, heart, and loins.

“Strongly fought (but not repressed—that is, not unconscious) homoerotic urges—and possibly even more haunting sexual fantasies—not only were present throughout Franz Kafka’s life, but they seem to have had an impact on diverse other personal issues[.]” Franz’ relationships with women vacillated from tepid, to platonic, to anxious, and often went unconsummated. In his fiction he expresses barely disguised homoerotic urges, and in one diary entry he shows a fine eye for the limbs of two Swedish boys. Another letter sees him recount the pleasure he felt when a young girl sat on his lap while riding a merry-go-round. These are ostensibly some of the ‘more haunting sexual fantasies’ Friedlander alludes to. The taboo of Kafka’s innermost sexual life would have made self-understanding a painful and perhaps impossible duty. In the latter two instances, in which he pines after children, it would have made total sublimation of his libido necessary.

So what effect, then, did Kafka’s confused sexuality have on his work? Friedlander points to his negative portrayals of women, connecting this to the disgust and fear he felt towards sleeping with them in his own life. The powerful mistresses who guard the village in The Castle, Fraulein Bürstner, who leads Josef K. to his doom in The Trial, and the revolting Brunelda in Amerika, personify Kafka’s terror of conniving womanhood. In his writing, women are disproportionately represented as prostitutes or sinful creatures whose sexual powers are wielded for dark purposes.

In perhaps the biography’s most impressive example of exegesis, Friedlander works through the short story “The Country Doctor,” which seems a true distillation of all of Kafka’s neuroses. In it, a doctor is called upon to treat a young boy who is dying of an incurable wound in a remote rural area. Through the intervention of a sinister groom and his two horses, the doctor gets to the house and, after lying down in bed with his patient, sees that he has a yawning, worm-infested wound in his hip. The doctor assures the boy he will be fine even though he knows he’s about to die, while he secretly worries about the fate of his servant, who he presumes is being raped by the groom. The deathlike horses then whisk him away from the patient’s home to wander the country aimlessly.

The boy’s wound, in Friedlander’s treatment of the story, represents the accursed vagina, and more abstractly, man’s original sin from which the boy cannot possibly divest himself. Meanwhile, the doctor is perhaps a modern proxy for the Wandering Jew as he’s left to travel the country purposelessly, unable to stop the horrors being visited upon his servant. Supernatural intervention, in this case the intrusion of the groom and his horses, has had no heavenly affect, but rather an evil one. There is no prospect of a return to grace, no redemption, only the promise of eternal suffering.

Describing A Country Doctor, Friedlander says that it evokes “some of the major issues to which [Kafka] kept returning: a shameful absence of feelings and moral responsibility, a confused and confusing sexuality, the evasiveness of the truth and, mainly, the Evil in the world and of the world.” This is perhaps the most succinct encapsulation of Franz Kafka in the entire book, and the first and last of these issues seem closely bonded. An uncommonly introspective person, Kafka agonized over his own emotional detachment and accompanying alienation. But it is precisely this detachment that allowed him to see the world so objectively and thus perceive its hypocrisies and sinister machinations with such prescience, and his conclusions convey little hope. In his writing, the labyrinthine, incomprehensible world is not so much indifferent to human life as it is bent on its destruction.

Returning, finally, to the primacy Friedlander places on Kafka’s sexuality and how it manifests in his stories, what can we conclude? Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything. It’s possible Kafka might have had forbidden sexual urges, which, if carried through, could have placed him at odds with his family, society, or even the law. Despite his dabbling, he was disgusted at the prospect of heterosexual intercourse and we know of no gay liaisons. The only place, it seems, the cravings of his libido were given full expression was in his literature. On the page he was free to express himself in ways prohibited by society, that suffocating, sinister illusion he both exposed and submitted himself to.    

— Eliott McCormick